Want to remind yourself what being in the hills is really all about? Spend a night out alone – under a tarp.
Opening my eyes, my head is clear. Colour invigorates my retinas. Crisp air fills my lungs. I’m awake, and I’ve never been more so.
Last night, I’d climbed 400m up the side of the Lake District’s Raven Crag, and rigged a basic shelter between a couple of weather-worn pine trees clinging to a cliff ledge. The tarp – a simple square of nylon – is still tight, raking down to the mossy ground on my windward side. With nothing but fresh air between me and the cinematic view swirling around the 7km-long empty stretch of Thirlmere, I hardly know this simplest of shelters is there. Honestly, if you haven’t ever woken up without that usual tenty smell of unwashed feet, sweat and stale farts, you should try it.
If the midges allow, there is no better way to spend a night than under a tarp. A lift of my head and the panorama is right there. I’m not missing that womb-like safety you get from a tent at all. Just a roof works just fine.
I’d arrived the evening before, rain an imminent threat. A year ago I’d clocked this most sublime of bivvy spots: a ledge, level, surrounded by trees on three sides, a steep drop to the fourth, and – well, you saw the view for yourself on the preceding spread.
I’d fed a line of paracord quickly through the tarp’s loops and strung it between the only two trees clinging to the ledge itself. With just four pegs packed, I’d fashioned more from sticks and tied guy lines to rocks. By the time the mizzle hit, the tarp was taut and shrewdly angled, with my pan sitting under the main drip point, collecting cooking water for the morning. Between you and me, I was rather pleased with how things were going.
But then, standing up from smugly re-tensioning an already-tight guy rope, I walked straight into a large branch. It physically floored me. Looking up at the sky, I pondered the situation: I was high in the mountains, two metres from the edge of a ledge, alone.
But, oddly, I was in no hurry to move. I ambled around the humbling thought that, of the thousand days – or so – I’d spent in the mountains, very few had been spent alone. And I like being alone. My adrenaline surged at the thought of 24 hours to myself, with only my own curiosity to satisfy. I’d purposefully made no plans past where I’d sleep. I’d never not had a plan before. And, to be honest, it had seemed like tempting fate to plan beyond surviving the night.
I’d been bumped from my thoughts by the realisation that the pine woods cladding the crag beyond this tiny clearing had quickly swallowed the last light. Scoffing a meal hastily cooked on my Trangia stove, I’d kept nervously turning my head from the view to this claustrophobic darkness thickening in the woods. Somehow that deep, dark wood had seemed more sinister without someone by my side. Nothing was out there, I’d reasoned to myself. Nothing in Britain could do me any real harm. Any madman I’d encounter up here would surely be just as wary of me as I would be of him. The only threat – as I’d already proved – was my own idiocy.
After that stern talking-to, I’d focused on the real and present danger. I’d tidied my kit to make a trip-free camp. I’d consciously kept the line of the ledge in my eyesight. I’d planned my night-wee route past the guy ropes. Confident I was doing a good job, I’d relaxed. Pulling my sleeping bag tight around my neck, I’d abandoned myself to the patter of rain on the tarp and the slowly dissolving view.
Waking, hours of dead sleep later, the slowly percolating realisation that I have, indeed, survived, brings joy that’s as base as that I felt when my children were born. And that’s before I open my eyes. High above Thirlmere is a great place to be at six o’clock in the morning. Snow on the top of a distant Helvellyn, framed by the icy edge of my tarp; birds twittering all around... I could go on.
For three hours I make coffee, eat porridge and sit there, just being. Something, I realise, has happened during the night. I now feel part of this landscape, not just in it. Everything is interesting – even the moss I’m sitting on. Everything makes sense now I’ve nothing more to worry about than eating, sleeping and staying alive. And my mood doesn’t change when I eventually pack up and move on.
My walk is slow and deliberately random. I veer away from summits and seek out with my feet the freedom my eyes drank in at dawn. I follow contours rather than paths. I find a grove of wind-beaten juniper trees and sit there for who knows how long. I hear the wings of a passing bird. I notice the warmth of a sun-baked rock.
It’s not that I’ve never had such a good time on the hill – just that, without anyone else to distract me from it, I’d never felt such a part of the hill.
And, lying back on a slab of stone looking up at a solar halo the like of which I’ve never seen before, I do come over all a bit evangelical. Truly, it was intense.
Nearing the car much, much later, I meet a man. He’s the first person I’ve seen for 24 hours. We fall into close talk about the mountains, both glad of each other’s company. I tell him of my night under the tarp. I probably sound like a right loon, but he understands. Being in the mountains is enough, but being alone can be even better.
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS TOM BAILEY